Chapter 7: What Works? Best Practices in Truancy Prevention & Early Intervention Strategies

Best Practices: Prevention and Intervention

  1. Collect, maintain and use attendance records to inform intervention strategies
  2. Reach out early to families of at-risk children
  3. Collaborate across the community to connect families with resources
  4. Establish an active School Attendance Review Board (SARB)
  5. Help your community understand: Attendance is important and it’s the law

Truancy and chronic absence in elementary school must be addressed early and often. If we don’t intervene early to learn why a child is missing school and provide support and services to the student and his or her family, the harmful ripple effects can be severe and wide-ranging.

Research shows that a focus on the underlying causes of truancy is crucial to eliminating barriers that prevent a child from attending school on a regular basis.154Nauer, White & Yerneni, R. (2008). Strengthening Schools by Strengthening Families: Community Strategies to Reverse Chronic Absenteeism in the Early Grades and improve Supports for Children and Families. Center for New York City Affairs, The New School. Early intervention – addressing the problem in elementary school, and before the problem becomes severe – can help to correct attendance issues and ensure that students graduate from high school.

A 2012 study analyzed records from a large urban school district of the attendance patterns of students in grades 1-8 to predict whether they would complete high school.155Schoeneberger, J.A. (2012). Longitudinal Attendance Patterns: Developing High School Dropouts. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 85:1, 7-14 Students who missed the most school across all grades and students whose truancy problems increased in middle school had a more than 20% likelihood of dropping out of high school. But younger students whose truancy issues were addressed early were shown to have roughly half the likelihood (11%) of dropping out.

Know Who Is Absent and Why: Records Collection and Analysis

To identify children who are at risk of becoming truant and the reasons why they are missing school, it is essential to collect and analyze attendance records. The ability to spot and track attendance trends over time – of individual students, as well as siblings who attend school in the same district or students in the same neighborhood – is critical to any effective truancy intervention.

When schools or districts rely solely on memory and anecdote to determine which students are missing from the classroom, they can miss the larger patterns. It is critical to understand a student’s attendance in relation to other personal, academic and behavioral factors.

For example, a student may be absent every Friday and Monday or multiple siblings in one district may have excessive absences. When districts are aware of these patterns, they gain critical information and can reach out to families and coordinate the resources that are necessary to get children back in school. Patterns of chronic absence can also reveal issues impacting groups of students – as in the case of a classroom where there has been a lice outbreak and parents are keeping their children at home.

California requires school districts to report to the state the aggregate number of students in attendance each day and the number of truant students, but does not require districts to report the number of excused and unexcused absences for each student or student attendance over time. Many districts do collect this information – including districts who responded to our District Leadership Survey.

Yet, as Chapter 4 described with respect to statewide records, too many districts across the state do not have or do not use the tools available to comprehensively track and monitor student attendance.

School attendance records are typically collected, tracked and analyzed electronically by what is referred to as a “school information system” (“SIS”). Ninety-four percent of the 50 districts who responded to the District Leadership Survey reported that their SIS is linked district-wide so that every school in their district uses the same system. However, based on our conversations with districts, many districts do not engage in the ongoing review and analysis that transforms a static set of numbers into a powerful tool for reducing truancy and chronic absenteeism.

FINDING: Districts that regularly monitor records and share them with school sites can identify and address changes in attendance patterns for individual students, siblings and schools in a timely and efficient manner.

For example, Oakland Unified School District produces and posts weekly attendance reports on its intranet. These reports include ADA and chronic absence records individually by school. From the district’s database, principals can also obtain attendance records for individual students who are chronically absent. This information can then be used to target specific interventions for those students.156For more information on strategies implemented in Oakland, visit: http://www.attendanceworks.org/what-works/oakland/ Chula Vista Elementary School District likewise reviews its attendance records to assist in its early intervention efforts. Among other things, the district provides student-specific information (including student name, ID number, grade, teacher name and excused and unexcused absences and tardies) to principals on a quarterly basis. The sharing and analysis of such information is critical to early intervention because it helps schools and districts to determine which students are missing school and why, and can help get the child back into the classroom.

In one district, for example, attendance clerks noticed that a student who previously had good attendance began missing a lot of school. The sudden change coincided with the death of the child’s mother. Armed with this knowledge, the school provided the student with grief counseling and special attention.

Another district found that absence due to lice was unusually high in its schools. To address this issue, the district provided handouts, tips and videos to school nurses so they could provide parents with information on how to prevent and eradicate lice.

FINDING: School districts are not uniform in the kind of attendance records they collect, how often they collect it and in the way they review, share and analyze the attendance records collected by their school information system. This hampers their ability to develop targeted strategies to identify and reach out to at-risk students before they become truant.

All but one of the districts that responded to our District Leadership Survey reported that they collect evidence on excused and unexcused absences – but there is not uniformity in terms of how often that evidence is reviewed.157“Other” responses include: “every learning period,” “after the first truancy offense,” “as needed” and “twice-monthly.”

“How often is data on unexcused absences in elementary schools reviewed at the district level?”

  • 16% review daily
  • 23% review weekly
  • 39% review monthly
  • 9% review annually
  • 13% other

Many districts also do not share truancy and absenteeism records frequently and consistently with individual schools – another critical piece of prevention and intervention so that schools know who to target for outreach in real-time.158Because the number of respondents is rounded up, the sum totals 101%. “Other” responses include: 3x/year, 3x/semester, every 6 weeks and “it varies.”

How often does the district communicate with individual schools about their rates of truancy and absenteeism?

  • 2% communicate daily
  • 12% communicate weekly
  • 42% communicate monthly
  • 10% communicate quarterly
  • 4% communicate twice a year
  • 2% communicate annually
  • 8% communicate only when significant changes occur
  • 4% do not communicate at all
  • 17% “other”

FINDING: Along with a wide variation in how school districts track attendance, schools and districts vary in terms of the degree to which they dedicate personnel and tools to track and analyze attendance records.

Careful monitoring of student absences (both excused and unexcused) and outreach to families are valuable tools to prevent truancy. These efforts require an investment of resources. Several districts gave stark examples of how budget cuts hampered their truancy prevention efforts. In some districts, positions have been eliminated, such as full-time attendance clerks, field assistants (who would make phone calls and home visits), school counselors and assistant or vice principals, who are typically tasked with attendance-related responsibilities, including making calls or home visits to families.159Districts that reported the loss or reduction of these positions include Hemet Unified School District, Long Beach Unified School District, and Oceanside Unified School District. Yucaipa-Calimesa Unified School District, for example, lost 50% of their elementary school administration in 2008. School resource officers (SROs), who make frequent home visits, were reduced in the district from 3 to 1. Today, there is only one SRO for 14 schools.

As demonstrated in Chapter 1, resources expended on attendance monitoring will often pay for themselves as schools can increase their overall budgets by millions of dollars by improving attendance.

FINDING: It is important to track every absence – whether it is an unexcused or excused absence. A district-wide policy on excessive excused absences can provide an early warning system to identify children who are at risk of becoming chronically absent and reach out to their families.

Several of the schools and districts that we interviewed for this report collect and analyze excused absences and have developed policies to deal with excessive excused absences and/or chronic absenteeism – for example, some districts send a notification letter to parents after a child misses a certain number of school days (even if the absences are excused).

Based on estimates provided by School Innovations & Achievement, the vast majority – 95% – of chronically absent elementary school children are also truant. Therefore, school districts that focus primarily on issuing notifications of truancy (as required under the law) as their first attendance intervention will catch nearly all chronically absent elementary school students in the process. However, not all chronically absent children are truant – some will have many excused absences and no unexcused absences. A policy on excessive excused absences can help ensure that districts reach every student with an attendance problem.

Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District, for example, uses attendance records to identify children who are at risk of becoming truant or chronically absent, and then follows up by reaching out to their families: At the beginning of the school year, Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District identifies students who missed 10% of the prior school (regardless of whether their absence was excused or unexcused) as well as those in the “Manageable Zone” (those who miss more than 5% of school, for whatever reason, the year before). The district continues to track and update this list during the school year. It uses this data to identify and make contact with students and families to make sure they are supported in their attendance. Child welfare and attendance (CWA) specialists from the district visit every school in the district weekly to review historical attendance data on students, and to identify students in the Manageable Zone. They will then call families or pay a home visit, to discuss the importance of attending school and to identify any issues for which targeted intervention is appropriate.

Long Beach Unified School District engages in similar analysis and monitoring of students with past attendance issues. At the beginning of the school year, the district identifies students who received multiple truancy letters in the prior year, and asks its schools to closely monitor their attendance and refer to the SART and SARB process where necessary if they continue to have attendance issues.

In addition to monitoring students with a poor attendance history, several districts also send notification letters to parents of students who have missed a certain number of excused absences. Ceres Unified School District, for example, notifies parents after eight excused illness-related absences, and then sends a second letter after nine excused illness-related absences. Oakland Unified School District sends a chronic absence notification letter to parents after eight absences, whether excused or unexcused.

FINDING: Schools and districts that track their truancy interventions build a record of their efforts to address the attendance issue, which is essential in serious cases in which law enforcement decides to intervene. These records also make targeted early interventions easier and more effective.

In addition to identifying at-risk students before they become truant, with the hope that early intervention can return the child to the classroom, this careful monitoring and analysis of student-specific attendance records serves another valuable purpose: it creates a trail that schools can use to see how a child’s attendance problems have been addressed. In the serious cases where law enforcement and a county’s district attorney decide to exercise their authority to address a student’s truancy, this trail is essential. School districts, researchers and policymakers can also use this record to refine both their understanding of the causes and effects of truancy, as well as their strategies to combat the problem.

One of our key recommendations for schools and districts is quite simple: know who is absent and why by collecting individualized attendance records and using them to inform intervention strategies in real-time. A robust record system allows a district to target its limited resources more effectively because it focuses on the source and scope of a child’s attendance issues. But analyzing the record is just the first step. It must be followed up by a phone call, home visit or meeting with the student and his or her family to address the underlying causes of truancy.

Reach out early and often to families of at-risk children

To prevent a child’s truancy or chronic absence from becoming a full-blown crisis, districts and schools should establish relationships with families to address barriers to attendance. Truancy prevention efforts are most effective when they are collaborative, comprehensive and tailored to meet the needs of the student and his or her family. Successful intervention strategies begin – but do not end – by complying with California truancy laws.

FINDING: Regular, personal communication with students and their families – including at-risk students such as English learners, foster children and free and reduced price lunch / low-income students – is critical and should start with a student’s first unexcused absence.

Sonoma County Truancy Interventions

Figure 7.1: Sonoma County Truancy Interventions

Several studies identify interaction with the guardians of a truant child as critical to any effective truancy prevention or intervention effort.160See Epstein, J. L., & Sheldon, S. B. (2002). Present and accounted for: Improving student attendance through family and community involvement. Journal of Educational Research, 95, 308-318. This begins, at a minimum, with schools’ legally-mandated truancy notifications and attempts to meet with guardians of truant elementary school students.

Although this report recommends school districts do more than required under California law, mere compliance with the law does yield dividends in increased attendance. In Sonoma County, for example, 1,055 children (grades 1-5) were sent first notifications of truancy (after the third unexcused absence). Of those, only 280 required the next level of intervention.161Information retrieved from SARB report provided by Sonoma County Office of Education.

Similarly, in Ventura County, 5,990 elementary school students (K-5) received first notifications of truancy, only 32% (1,882) required additional intervention.162Information retrieved from SARB report provided by Sonoma County Office of Education.

Ventura County Truancy Interventions

Figure 7.2: Ventura County Truancy Interventions

Districts overwhelmingly agreed about the importance of going above and beyond what is required under California law. For example, 94% of the 50 districts that responded to our District Leadership Survey reported that, between the third and fifth unexcused absence, the district or school undertakes additional outreach to parents or guardians, even though they are not required to do so.

To engage parents in a dialogue about their child’s absenteeism and uncover its roots, it is important to notify them as soon as possible. As shown in Figure 7.3163Figure 7.3: “Other” includes: “It varies,” and “Parents notify us.”
Note: Because the responses are rounded off the totals may not equal 100%.
, the 50 districts who responded to our survey reported that 88% of their elementary schools notify parents on the same day a child is absent. Because our survey was voluntary, we expect that respondents are more advanced than the average district in terms of their attendance-related programs.

Districts use a variety of methods to reach out to families, from personal and automated calls to e-mails, letters and home visits.

More than 50% of the districts surveyed believed that a combination of a personal call and a letter was the most effective way to communicate with guardians.

FINDING: Meeting with the parents/guardians of students with attendance issues prior to their referral to SARB enables schools and districts to collaborate with families to find a strategy that meets their needs. While attempts to meet with parents are common, districts’ actual completion rate for these meetings is troublingly low.

Notification Times for Student Absenses

Figure 7.3: Notification Times for Student Absenses

In addition to letters and phone calls, districts cited the effectiveness of in-person meetings with families. These meetings are commonly referred to as a Student Attendance Review Team (SART) meeting, a Student Success Team (SST) meeting, or a pre-SARB meeting. Districts are legally mandated to make a conscientious effort to meet with families after a child’s fifth unexcused absence, but additional meetings beyond bare compliance are also effective.

The majority of the districts surveyed – 78% – reported that most of their schools attempt to hold meetings with parents/guardians to discuss how to improve a child’s attendance between the first and third notification of truancy, prior to convening a SARB meeting. However, these meetings were not universal among survey respondents. In addition, 40% of respondents reported that they complete a meeting with the guardian less than half of the time when the district attempts to hold a conference after the third notification of truancy, as required by law. Moreover, 14% of the responses indicated that a meeting is completed less than 10% of the time. Less than a quarter of respondents (24%) responded that they are able to complete a meeting over 90% of the time.

For those meetings that take place, school representatives such as the principal, counselor, nurse and attendance clerk meet with the student and family to discuss barriers to attendance and help connect the family to resources, both within the school and in the community. At the end of the meeting, the school representatives typically work with parents to draw up a “contract” that lays out what each stakeholder (student, parent, and school) will do to improve the student’s attendance. The contract also notes the consequences of breaking the contract or attendance laws.164A sample SART contract from Escondido Union School District is available in English and Spanish at http://www.careyouth.org/?s=TIME

Districts report that these meetings typically take place after the first truancy notification letter (i.e., after three unexcused absences, tardies or some combination of the two), but before the student and parents are referred to SARB.

Parent meetings at the school provide a vital learning opportunity for both families and schools. Families can discover that there are options other than keeping a child out of school, e.g., an asthma plan, free counseling and services for homeless families. If a child is being kept at home because of asthma or depression following the death of a sibling or parent, the school has an opportunity in these meetings to learn about these underlying obstacles to attendance and connect families to the resources they need.

Information from Los Angeles County’s 2011-2012 SARB report illustrate the effectiveness of parent meetings in preventing referrals to SARB. In 2011-2012, more than 5,624 elementary school students (grades K-6) were referred to SART meetings at their respective schools. Following the participation of their families in SART meetings, almost 80% of these students did not end up being referred to SARB. Similarly, Sonoma County reported an 86% success rate with its SART process.165Information retrieved from SARB report provided by Sonoma County Office of Education.

Sonoma County SART to SARB

Figure 7.4: Sonoma County SART to SARB

FINDING: Home visits with students and families are an effective, and sometimes necessary, step in truancy prevention that can help districts and schools to uncover the complex challenges that pose barriers to attendance for the families of chronically absent children. Use of home visits as an intervention strategy varies among survey respondents and interviewees.

One school district official told a story about a third grade student with attendance problems whose family benefitted tremendously from a home visit. The child, who was shy and had few friends, seemed to be suffering from depression. Prior to a parent meeting, a district official visited the girl’s home to see if he could determine the underlying causes of her absenteeism. He found that she was living in a house with no power, utilities or plumbing. The girl was reluctant to go to school because she did not want to wear dirty clothes. Because of this outreach effort, the school and district were able to link her family with resources available under the federal McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act, including new clothes.

One district has an intervention team made up of representatives from the school, district attorney’s office, police department and a faith-based organization. Among other intervention efforts, the team conducts home visits. A district official provided an example of how a home visit by the team uncovered an extremely difficult situation: An elementary school principal noticed that three students from the same family were increasingly defiant and disheveled. The children, and their older sibling, had not been to school for an extended period of time. The principal contacted the superintendent and a home visit by the intervention team was planned. The intervention team was familiar with this family and suspected that the children’s mother had relapsed into drug use. The intervention team visited the home and found that it was overrun with cockroaches. The mother appeared to be under the influence of drugs and the older student was responsible for taking care of two infants. Through this intervention, the district was able to refer the students and the parent to the services they desperately needed.

Uncovering the cause of a child’s absenteeism through phone calls, home visits or school-site meetings with parents allows school and district officials to link a child’s family to the resources and services they need to overcome barriers to attendance. Personal interaction between school officials and parents is key to uncovering the underlying causes of truancy and absenteeism. It is recommended that school districts engage parents with these personal communications throughout the school year.

Establish an active School Attendance Review Board (SARB)

Multiple districts emphasized the benefits of establishing an active School Attendance Review Board (SARB). According to district officials, a primary benefit of a SARB meeting is that qualified professionals are present to help identify and solve a crisis by connecting families to critical resources.

A robust SARB is a formal mechanism to provide opportunities for families, schools and districts to reduce truancy and chronic absence:

  • Families gain knowledge of – and access to – resources and services;
  • Schools learn about the underlying causes of a student’s attendance issues; and,
  • Districts are able to put families on notice about the scope and gravity of their child’s attendance issues.

FINDING: An effective SARB functions as the nexus between schools, county services and law enforcement, providing an opportunity for stakeholders to collaborate and develop a pragmatic, tailored approach to preventing truancy and chronic absence.

At one SARB hearing, for example, the Board learned that an elementary school student’s depression was causing her to have trouble attending school. The SARB offered mental health counseling to the student, which her parents did not know was available. District officials reported that the student’s attendance improved.

Officials from a rural school district described a SARB case in which a mother and her two young children walked two miles round-trip to the elementary school because the family could not afford transportation. The children – who were in the first and third grades – had each accumulated more than 30 unexcused absences. After the SARB hearing, the SARB referred her to a program that provided free bus passes.

Another school district official told the story of a SARB meeting where a mother said she was struggling to wake her children and get them ready for school in the morning: The mother said she tried to get the kids to school on time, but they always woke up sluggish and tired. The SARB explored the family’s nutritional habits and discovered that they were consuming unhealthy food and drinks late at night. The SARB referred the mother to a school nurse, who provided nutritional counseling. When the mother changed her children’s diets, their attendance improved.

FINDING: In addition to providing needed services, SARBs can be effective in improving attendance when parents are aware of the real consequences – both for their child and for themselves – of continued truancy. To improve attendance and compliance, some districts hold SARB hearings at a police department, district attorney’s office, or in a courtroom.

Putting the weight of the court and district attorney behind truancy prevention can help to improve parental compliance with mandatory attendance requirements. Several districts reported that making SARBs distinct from school- and district-only intervention programs serves to underscore for parents and guardians that there will be serious consequences if their child’s attendance does not improve, and that attendance is critical to their child’s success.

Districts report that conducting SARB hearings at police departments or the local courthouse is an effective strategy to ensure that parents understand the gravity of the SARB process and the consequences for not complying.

FINDING: The amount of SARB records collected and reported by districts and counties varies widely across the state, and is largely inadequate. Reporting comprehensive SARB records annually provides critical information for both school districts and county offices of education to better understand the scope of truancy within their district or county. Also, by collecting more complete records on absences, districts and counties are better able to identify the effectiveness of truancy programs at intervening in severe attendance cases.

Currently, the reporting requirements for SARBs are minimal. State law requires school districts that maintain SARBs to report to their county superintendent of schools the number and types of referrals to SARBs and the number of requests to petitions to the juvenile court.166Education Code section 48273. The California Department of Education provides both basic and extended annual SARB report templates for school districts to use in reporting this information.167These SARB report templates are available on the California Department of Education’s Website at http://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/ai/sb/outcomereport.asp The basic template captures:

  • Number of SARB referrals classified by grade level and gender;
  • Reason for the SARB referral (irregular attendance, behavior, or habitual truant); and
  • Number of cases that were referred to the court system.

Most SARB Reports Collected from Counties Meet Only Basic Requirements

Figure 7.5: Most SARB Reports Collected from Counties Meet Only Basic Requirements168As described above, the terms Basic and Extended refer to the two types of SARB report templates offered by CDE. The chart lists “variations of extended” to refer to several instances in which officials used a similarly comprehensive template, but collected different types of information.

Although not legally required, records collected using the more comprehensive and recommended extended SARB report template published by California Department of Education captures the above information, as well as:

  • Number of students identified as a chronic absentee;
  • Percent of students identified as a chronic absentee;
  • Student Attendance Review Team (SART) or Student Success Team (SST) meeting;
  • Number of students who improved their attendance;
  • Number of students who improved their behavior; and
  • Number of students who were eventually referred to the court system, an outside agency, or to an alternative school.

To better understand the kind of information SARBs are reporting, we contacted all 58 county offices of education in California requesting that they send us copies of the SARB reports they had received from districts within their county for the past three school years. Of the 58 county offices of education, 43 provided our office with district or county SARB reports. The remainder confirmed that either there were no SARBs within their jurisdiction and/or they did not collect district SARB reports. The SARB reports received indicate that the amount and type of information collected across the state is highly variable, with the vast majority of the SARBs only reporting the level of information requested in the Department of Education’s basic SARB template. Some SARBs, however, report more comprehensive statistics using the California Department of Education’s extended SARB form or a variation of that form.

Below are a series of examples from SARB reports county offices of education provided us that track comprehensive statistics on elementary school attendance over multiple years. These statistics indicate that the majority of attendance problems can be and are resolved with early interventions such as a SART or SARB process, without resorting to further discipline measures.

Riverside County SARB Truancy Data

Figure 7.6: Riverside County SARB Truancy Data169Figure 7.6 is based on information from district SARB reports provided by the Riverside County Office of Education. Because the number of district SARB reports varied from year to year, Figure 7.6 is not intended to reflect a year-to-year trend, only the success rate of the SART and SARB process within each year.

Los Angeles County SARB Truancy Data

Figure 7.7: Los Angeles County SARB Truancy Data

An effective SARB helps to increase school attendance, which, in turn, improves public safety and saves taxpayer dollars. Recognizing the importance of SARBs, the California Department of Education annually honors the work of model SARBs across the state.170Each year, the California Department of Education honors Model SARBs, which serve as useful examples for ideas about how to create or improve a local SARB. More information is available at http://www.cde.ca.gov/nr/ne/yr13/yr13rel38.asp And comprehensive reporting of SARB statistics helps districts build on their successes.

Our recommendations to create and maintain a robust SARB, and report comprehensive SARB statistics, are driven by a single goal: to provide opportunities for families, schools and districts to reduce truancy and chronic absenteeism.

Collaborate with community organizations to connect families with resources

Effective attendance strategies do not rely solely on the resources of an individual school or district. By establishing formal partnerships with other public agencies and community-based organizations, schools and districts can better address the root causes of truancy and connect families with the resources they need to solve the underlying problem. It is not enough to simply refer a family for services; effective partnerships ensure the family actually receives the intended services.

FINDING: Affordability and accessibility are common barriers to providing resources to families of truant elementary school children, but community partners are an underutilized resource. Some districts have leveraged partnerships with community-based organizations to help districts provide wrap-around services at the school site.

Several districts surveyed for this report have partnered with community organizations and agencies to bring mental health services directly to the school (on campus, during or after school hours). These services are offered at little or no cost to schools or families.

For example, Alhambra School District’s Gateway to Success program linked more than 2,000 children to school-based services in 2012-2013. Gateway to Success – which includes the participation of nearly a dozen mental health agencies and over 100 clinical interns from eight accredited universities – focuses on prevention and intervention related to safety, mental health, alcohol and drugs. The program also offers early education services.171The Los Angeles County School Attendance Task Force (SATF) recently published an extensive manual entitled “How to Improve School Attendance: A Practical Guide for Schools and School Districts.” http://educationcoordinatingcouncil.org/H2ISA/H2ISA_Bkgrd.html. This manual highlights Alhambra Unified School District’s Gateway to Success Program. See http://educationcoordinatingcouncil.org/H2ISA/H2ISAM2_8.html

Other districts have similarly worked with graduate schools to find social work and psychology interns, which allows them to offer counseling at little or no cost at the school site. These strategies have enabled districts to reach out to a greater number of students and their families and provide much-needed counseling to help with underlying issues that contribute to truancy and chronic absence.172Districts and county offices of education that have used graduate interns include Alhambra Unified School District, Cypress Unified School District, Glendale Unified School District, Hemet Unified School District, San Francisco Unified School District and Mono and Inyo County Offices of Education. For graduate students, this work is an opportunity to fulfill their necessary clinical hours in a meaningful setting.

Other districts that offer “one-stop” services directly to students and families or that link families with resources include:

Leveraging outside resources by partnering with community-based organizations allows schools and districts to better support students and families and improve school attendance. It is recommended that districts form these partnerships to provide wrap-around services and ensure that children stay in the classroom.

FINDING: Pairing students with mentors by tapping into the resources and expertise of outside agencies – as well as the assistance of volunteers drawn from school staff and community-and faith-based organizations – is an effective, and underutilized, way for districts to support the needs of elementary school students and families at no- or low-cost.

Elementary school students who are truant or at risk of becoming truant often benefit from the focused support of a mentor, and school districts can build mentoring programs by finding volunteers in the community, as well as their own schools.

For example, the Gang Reduction Intervention Program (GRIP) in Orange County is a public-private collaboration of law enforcement agencies, educators and volunteers from community- and faith-based organizations. As part of the countywide program, at-risk students are paired with teachers who volunteer to mentor at-risk children and meet with them at lunch or after school.

Other districts find volunteers willing to donate their time to support at-risk children in community-and faith-based organizations. A local non-profit organization called Youth for Christ of Central Valley, for example, provides mentors for students within Ceres Unified School District.

Several programs in other states have targeted truancy prevention and drawn on resources within the community, with proven success. As part of a larger effort to combat truancy and absenteeism, the New York City Mayor’s Interagency Task Force on Truancy, Chronic Absenteeism & School Engagement engages volunteers from non-profit organizations, as well as teachers and staff, to work with at-risk students.173http://www.attendanceworks.org/what-works/new-york-city/success-mentors/; http://www.mikebloomberg.com/index.cfm?objectid=89CDE971-C29C-7CA2-FDDB6902FA1F03C9 Mentors, who commit to volunteering 15 hours per week, speak to students every day by phone or at school. They also serve as a liaison between the child’s school and home and, working with the child’s parents/guardians, identify the problems that have led to truancy. In the first half of the 2010-2011 school year, 22 of the 25 schools that participated in the Success Mentors program reduced their absentee rates. Ten elementary schools made the greatest strides, with a collective 24% decline in the percentage of students who were chronically absent.174Musser, (2011). Taking Attendance Seriously: How School Absences Undermine Student and School Performance in New York City, The Campaign for Physical Equity.

The University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis Check & Connect Program connects disengaged students with mentors who monitor their attendance, academic performance and behavior, and offer individualized intervention with school personnel, families and service providers.175http://checkandconnect.umn.edu/email/2012.11.29.html The mentor works with students and families for at least two years, operating at the district level to continue to work with the same students even if they move schools.

Check & Connect is one of 27 dropout prevention programs reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse.176http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/pdf/intervention_reports/WWC_Check_Connect_092106.pdf In a study of 147 elementary school students who were absent or tardy to school and participated in the program, about 40% were engaged and regularly attending school after two years – an improvement of 135% from when they joined the program.177http://checkandconnect.umn.edu/research/findings.html Tardiness also declined. About 86% of the students included in the study were engaged and arriving to school on time (the equivalent of 0-1 day tardy per month), an improvement of 104% since the start of their involvement with the program.178Ibid

The School Every Day campaign in Baltimore is another example of a successful mentoring program that uses community-based volunteers to mentor and encourage chronically truant students.179http://www.attendanceworks.org/what-works/baltimore/school-every-day-volunteer-initiative/ An information campaign aims to improve understanding about the importance of attending school and volunteers go door-to-door to hand out alarm clocks and information on school vaccines, sickness and oversleeping.180http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-schools-attendance-campaign-20110919,0,5749435.story To send the message directly to children, School Every Day also distributes letters of encouragement by community members and a peer-to-peer messaging system in which older students write to younger kids to let them know they are missed when they’re absent.181http://www.attendanceworks.org/what-works/baltimore/school-every-day-volunteer-initiative/

Spread the Message that School Attendance is Vital

Schools and districts need to work to help students and families understand the value of every day of school, the dangers of truancy and absenteeism and a parent’s legal obligations under California’s Compulsory Education Law. Schools and districts must also communicate to at-risk students and families that the student is valued and wanted in school.

FINDING: Parents and guardians do not always have complete information about the benefits of regular attendance and their legal obligation to ensure their children are in the classroom every day.

It is important for parents to understand what defines truancy and chronic absence. A clear policy on what constitutes an excused absence that is distributed to parents early in the school year can be helpful.

Several districts, such as Alpaugh Unified School District, send letters to parents/guardians at the beginning of every school year and close to vacation periods to remind them of what does – and does not – constitute an excused absence.

Parents and guardians also benefit from information about the importance of regular attendance to a child’s personal and academic development and the adverse consequences of chronic absence. A general understanding that education is important may not translate into knowledge about the harm that each day of absence can cause for an elementary school child. A deputy district attorney described a case in which a father – who had the best intentions – kept his three children out of school. The father worked evenings and weekends, and had three children (ages 7, 9 and a teenager in high school). Eager to spend time with his children, he took them to the park or the movies on school days. The two elementary school students had poor attendance starting in kindergarten, while their sibling in high school started missing school in the second grade. The man, who thought he was being a good father, wept when he was told he was committing a misdemeanor and negatively impacting his children’s education. The father said he did not realize how much damage he was doing by taking his children out of school.

FINDING: Parenting classes can be effective means of providing parents with simple tools to help to get their children in the classroom.

Parental influence is especially important when it comes to the attendance of elementary school students.182Zhang, Wilson, Katsiyannis, Barret, Ju & Wu (2010). Truancy Offenders in the Juvenile Justice System: A Multicohort Study. Behavioral Disorders (3), 229-242. In addition to the strategies discussed above, districts report that formal parenting classes can be highly effective. Indeed, studies show that effective and clear communication to families has a significant impact on improving attendance and reducing chronic absence.

In addition, districts report that formal parenting classes can be highly effective. Indeed, studies show that effective and clear communication to families has a significant impact on improving attendance and reducing chronic absence.183Chang & Romero 2008, citing Epstein & Sheldon.

In response to a Joint Survey from the Attorney General’s Office and the California Department of Education (Joint County Survey) inviting all county offices of education to answer a series of questions relating to their SARB and truancy-related practices, half of the 22 responding counties noted that parenting classes for parents of students with poor attendance are offered in their counties.

For example, as part of its Gateway to Success program, Alhambra Unified School District has a community outreach program for parents of truant and disruptive children. The Parent Project is a free, 10-week course to teach parents strategies to prevent and address their children’s destructive behavior, including truancy. The Parent Project aims to empower parents with new skills and an understanding of how to reach out for help – even after completing the program. The Parent Project courses are taught in the parents’ native language and culminate in a graduation ceremony that offers the parents community recognition for their engagement; these are two critical contributors to the program’s success.

Chula Vista Elementary School District engages in parent outreach through its Promotora program, in which parents connect other parents to health information, parenting classes and other resources. The district also created a parent engagement class to encourage parents to become partners in their child’s education, by teaching them how to navigate through the educational process, including expectations regarding attendance.

And in Stockton Unified School District, every school site has a parent council. There is also a parent involvement coordinator in the district who organizes parent meetings. In addition, the district holds weekly group meetings for parents of truant students, to educate them about the laws related to truancy and recommend resources to assist them in getting their kids to school.

FINDING: Events, as well as marketing and social media campaigns, are underutilized tools to highlight the importance of good attendance and engage students and their families. Fostering a “school culture” of good attendance is a powerful prevention strategy.

The message of good attendance is most effective when it comes from the top and is included in the goals of a district’s strategic plan. Oakland Unified School District, for example, with assistance from Attendance Works, used its chronic absence records to include the promotion of better attendance in its strategic plan.184See http://www.attendanceworks.org/what-works/oakland/ Likewise, Cajon Valley Unified School District has also included attendance goals in its strategic plans for the last few years.185See e.g., http://www.cajonvalley.net/Board.cfm?subpage=620884 This approach sends a strong message that attendance is important. The message is most powerful when it comes from the top – from the superintendent to principals, administrators and teachers. It also helps to describe the positive impact of good attendance, rather than focusing only on how chronic absence can lead to truancy court.

Many districts in California and elsewhere have launched marketing campaigns to raise awareness about the importance of attendance. And 14 out of 22 counties that responded to the Joint County Survey reported that media campaigns to promote attendance have either been developed or have been planned in their counties.

In 2012, for example, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors named September as “School Attendance Month.” Thirteen districts joined in the campaign to encourage schools to promote attendance awareness through parent workshops, contests, announcements, awards/recognitions and attendance incentives.186http://pupilservices.lausd.net/school-attendance-review-board-sarb; http://www.lacoe.edu/Portals/0/StudentServices/SARB.pdf.

This year, 30 school districts are participating in School Attendance Month, and have devised several creative programs to raise attendance awareness. For example, Los Angeles Unified School District, Pomona Unified School District, Baldwin Park Unified School District, and Covina Valley Unified School District are all participating in Student Recovery Day. Initially launched by the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2009, Student Recovery Day provides an opportunity for districts to reach out to students – literally, with phone calls and home visits on a designated day in September – who have a poor attendance history, or who are enrolled in school but have not yet been to class.187http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2012/09/14/2-former-dropouts-lausd-to-launch-fifth-annual-student-recovery-day/.

Other initiatives as part of Student Recovery Day include an “On Time, In Class, Every Day!” attendance campaign with rallies and rewards for attendance (Baldwin Park Unified School District), “I’m In” days, when schools try for 100% attendance and classes are rewarded for achieving that goal (Covina-Valley Unified School District), and a “Power of 1%” campaign to increase ADA, including home visits to students who have not reported to school within the first two weeks of school, and personal phone calls to parents of students with excessive absences due to illness (Burbank Unified School District).188See http://www.publiccounsel.org/press_releases?id=0073

Oakland Unified School District recently released a music video to promote school attendance that features students and former Oakland student and NFL player Marshawn Lynch.189http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcH6kBNH2FQ.

Several districts and other organizations have published manuals, flyers and “attendance toolkits” with marketing materials designed to promote regular school attendance. Among others, Oakland Unified School District, in collaboration with community partners, as well as the Los Angeles Student Attendance Task Force and Attendance Works have all published toolkits.190See http://www.ousd.k12.ca.us/Page/536; http://www.educationcoordinatingcouncil.org/SATF_Tools.html; http://www.attendanceworks.org/tools/

Outside of California, New York City’s anti-truancy campaign teamed with Viacom to create a program to stress the importance of school attendance. As part of Wake Up NYC!, chronically absent and at-risk students receive wake-up calls from celebrities like Magic Johnson and singer John Legend, who encourage them to attend school.191http://wakeupnyc.org/.

FINDING: Some districts have developed creative incentives and rewards to recognize good or improved attendance – on the part of students and schools.

Many districts provide incentives and rewards for good or improved attendance – ranging from recognizing individual students at an assembly to giving out district-wide trophies to schools. In fact, 19 of the 22 counties that responded to the Joint County Survey reported that incentive or award programs to promote attendance have been developed in their counties. For some districts, the incentives are special events, recognition or prizes. These methods are particularly effective for elementary school children, who – as district officials report – are often thrilled to be recognized for good or improved attendance.

Chula Vista Elementary School District recognizes students with improved attendance with award tags, Wii game events after school and lunch parties for classes with good attendance.

Stockton Unified School District’s website features a rolling photo exhibit called “Caught You in Class,” in which a local radio personality and motivational speaker recognizes students with improved or perfect attendance during “Caught You In Class!” visits.”192http://susd-ca.schoolloop.com/cwa

Alhambra Unified School District and Alpaugh Unified School District recognize improved attendance at an assembly or in school-wide announcements. In Hemet Unified School District, the class with the greatest improvement in attendance at each elementary school is awarded with an attendance flag to hang in their room.

Several districts also award schools that have improved their attendance record. In Hemet Unified, for example, schools with improved ADA can receive up to $3,500 in additional discretionary funds. And as part of the 2012-203 “I’m In” School Attendance Challenge, six LAUSD schools won cash prizes of $3,000 for improved or excellent attendance.193http://home.lausd.net/apps/news/show_news.jsp?REC_ID=315554&id=0 LAUSD students were also rewarded for coming to school on time every day with more than 3,000 monthly prizes, gift cards, bicycles, amusement park and movie tickets and more. The event was sponsored and funded by various private donors.194Ibid Finally, the Los Angeles County SARB awards SARB monetary scholarships to students who have participated in the SARB process, graduated from high school and are pursuing post-secondary education.195http://www.lacoe.edu/Portals/0/StudentServices/SARB%20Scholarship%20Application%20-%20Shirley%20Abrams%20Award%202013.pdf; http://www.lacoe.edu/Portals/0/StudentServices/SARB.pdf

Along with fostering a culture of good attendance, it is recommended that schools and districts acknowledge and reward students who have good and, most importantly, improved attendance.

FINDING: Some school district policies or practices hinder, rather than help, the goal of keeping children in class every day.

Many barriers to attendance originate with the student or family. In some cases, however, schools and districts can create a barrier through their suspension and expulsion policies. Schools and districts should design their discipline policies to maximize a child’s ability to remain in school. In addition, truancy should not be a basis for suspending a child, as the result is counterproductive to goal of having the child in the classroom.196National School Boards Association (2013). Addressing The Out-Of-School Suspension Crisis:A Policy Guide For School Board Members. Retrieved from http://www.nsba.org/Board-Leadership/Surveys/Out-of-School-Suspension-Policy-Guide/Out-of-School-Suspension-Report.pdf

Statewide, far too many students in California are missing school due to suspensions. Approximately 85,000 elementary school students were suspended in the 2011-2012 school year.197Source: DataQuest (http://dq.cde.ca.gov/dataquest), retrieved September 24, 2013. These suspensions represent the loss of critical learning time for far too many of the state’s most at-risk students. Moreover, referrals for suspensions disproportionately impact students of color, particularly African-Americans and students with disabilities.198UCLA Civil Rights Project, 2010-2011 California data; retrieved from http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/resources/projects/center-for-civil-rights-remedies/school-to-prison-folder/summary-reports/out-of-school-off-track-reports-by-district/LosAngelesCA_OutofSchool-OffTrack_UCLA_2013.pdf on September 18, 2013. For example, a recent study showed that in Los Angeles, California, African-American students are suspended at more than twice the rate (6% versus 2.7%) of the general elementary school student population.199Ibid. Similarly, Latino and African American elementary school students with disabilities were suspended at a higher rate than those without disabilities.200Ibid. We recommend positive approaches to school discipline that hold students accountable but ensure that they remain in school.

  1.    Nauer, White & Yerneni, R. (2008). Strengthening Schools by Strengthening Families: Community Strategies to Reverse Chronic Absenteeism in the Early Grades and improve Supports for Children and Families. Center for New York City Affairs, The New School.
  2.    Schoeneberger, J.A. (2012). Longitudinal Attendance Patterns: Developing High School Dropouts. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 85:1, 7-14
  3.    For more information on strategies implemented in Oakland, visit: http://www.attendanceworks.org/what-works/oakland/
  4.    “Other” responses include: “every learning period,” “after the first truancy offense,” “as needed” and “twice-monthly.”
  5.    Because the number of respondents is rounded up, the sum totals 101%. “Other” responses include: 3x/year, 3x/semester, every 6 weeks and “it varies.”
  6.    Districts that reported the loss or reduction of these positions include Hemet Unified School District, Long Beach Unified School District, and Oceanside Unified School District.
  7.    See Epstein, J. L., & Sheldon, S. B. (2002). Present and accounted for: Improving student attendance through family and community involvement. Journal of Educational Research, 95, 308-318.
  8.    Information retrieved from SARB report provided by Sonoma County Office of Education.
  9.    Information retrieved from SARB report provided by Ventura County Office of Education.
  10.    Figure 7.3: “Other” includes: “It varies,” and “Parents notify us.”
    Note: Because the responses are rounded off the totals may not equal 100%.
  11.    A sample SART contract from Escondido Union School District is available in English and Spanish at http://www.careyouth.org/?s=TIME.
  12.    Information retrieved from SARB report provided by Sonoma County Office of Education.
  13.    Education Code section 48273.
  14.    These SARB report templates are available on the California Department of Education’s Website at http://www.cde.ca.gov/ls/ai/sb/outcomereport.asp.
  15.    As described above, the terms Basic and Extended refer to the two types of SARB report templates offered by CDE. The chart lists “variations of extended” to refer to several instances in which officials used a similarly comprehensive template, but collected different types of information.
  16.    Figure 7.6 is based on information from district SARB reports provided by the Riverside County Office of Education. Because the number of district SARB reports varied from year to year, Figure 7.6 is not intended to reflect a year-to-year trend, only the success rate of the SART and SARB process within each year.
  17.    Each year, the California Department of Education honors Model SARBs, which serve as useful examples for ideas about how to create or improve a local SARB. More information is available at http://www.cde.ca.gov/nr/ne/yr13/yr13rel38.asp.
  18.    The Los Angeles County School Attendance Task Force (SATF) recently published an extensive manual entitled “How to Improve School Attendance: A Practical Guide for Schools and School Districts.” http://educationcoordinatingcouncil.org/H2ISA/H2ISA_Bkgrd.html. This manual highlights Alhambra Unified School District’s Gateway to Success Program. See http://educationcoordinatingcouncil.org/H2ISA/H2ISAM2_8.html.
  19.    Districts and county offices of education that have used graduate interns include Alhambra Unified School District, Cypress Unified School District, Glendale Unified School District, Hemet Unified School District, San Francisco Unified School District and Mono and Inyo County Offices of Education.
  20.    http://www.attendanceworks.org/what-works/new-york-city/success-mentors/; http://www.mikebloomberg.com/index.cfm?objectid=89CDE971-C29C-7CA2-FDDB6902FA1F03C9
  21.    Musser, (2011). Taking Attendance Seriously: How School Absences Undermine Student and School Performance in New York City, The Campaign for Physical Equity.
  22.    http://checkandconnect.umn.edu/email/2012.11.29.html
  23.    http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/pdf/intervention_reports/WWC_Check_Connect_092106.pdf
  24.    http://checkandconnect.umn.edu/research/findings.html
  25.    Ibid.
  26.    http://www.attendanceworks.org/what-works/baltimore/school-every-day-volunteer-initiative/
  27.    http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-schools-attendance-campaign-20110919,0,5749435.story.
  28.    http://www.attendanceworks.org/what-works/baltimore/school-every-day-volunteer-initiative/.
  29.    Zhang, Wilson, Katsiyannis, Barret, Ju & Wu (2010). Truancy Offenders in the Juvenile Justice System: A Multicohort Study. Behavioral Disorders (3), 229-242.
  30.    Chang & Romero 2008, citing Epstein & Sheldon.
  31.    See http://www.attendanceworks.org/what-works/oakland/.
  32.    See e.g., http://www.cajonvalley.net/Board.cfm?subpage=620884
  33.    http://pupilservices.lausd.net/school-attendance-review-board-sarb; http://www.lacoe.edu/Portals/0/StudentServices/SARB.pdf.
  34.    http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2012/09/14/2-former-dropouts-lausd-to-launch-fifth-annual-student-recovery-day/.
  35.    See http://www.publiccounsel.org/press_releases?id=0073
  36.    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcH6kBNH2FQ.
  37.    See http://www.ousd.k12.ca.us/Page/536; http://www.educationcoordinatingcouncil.org/SATF_Tools.html; http://www.attendanceworks.org/tools/.
  38.    http://wakeupnyc.org/.
  39.    http://susd-ca.schoolloop.com/cwa
  40.    http://home.lausd.net/apps/news/show_news.jsp?REC_ID=315554&id=0
  41.    Ibid.
  42.    http://www.lacoe.edu/Portals/0/StudentServices/SARB%20Scholarship%20Application%20-%20Shirley%20Abrams%20Award%202013.pdf; http://www.lacoe.edu/Portals/0/StudentServices/SARB.pdf
  43.    National School Boards Association (2013). Addressing The Out-Of-School Suspension Crisis:A Policy Guide For School Board Members. Retrieved from http://www.nsba.org/Board-Leadership/Surveys/Out-of-School-Suspension-Policy-Guide/Out-of-School-Suspension-Report.pdf.
  44.    Data provided by the California Department of Education.
  45.    UCLA Civil Rights Project, 2010-2011 California data; retrieved from http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/resources/projects/center-for-civil-rights-remedies/school-to-prison-folder/summary-reports/out-of-school-off-track-reports-by-district/LosAngelesCA_OutofSchool-OffTrack_UCLA_2013.pdf on September 18, 2013.
  46.    Ibid.
  47.    Ibid.